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When we get on the phone, Julia Lucas apologizes that she’s only available for a short call. She has to get on a train from Brooklyn to Manhattan to go meet Aoibhe Richardson for what she calls “a monster workout.”
Lucas, who was previously a community running coach with Nike+ Run Club, is now coaching Richardson and her Atalanta NYC teammates—Jamie Morrissey and Karisa Nelson. It was announced on Monday that she would fill the head coach position previously held by Jon Green.
Each woman on the team has a big goal they are working toward in the near and long term: Richardson is working on getting qualified for the European Championships, Lucas believes Nelson can break four minutes in the 1500 meters with an Olympic goal in mind, and Morrissey is focused on keeping healthy after rehabbing her achilles injury. Lucas is hopeful for an Olympic Trials appearance for Morrissey as well.
A former professional runner herself with Oregon Track Club Elite, Lucas is familiar with what it takes to perform on an elite level. In 2012 she narrowly missed making the Olympic team in the 5,000 meters, taking fourth place at the Olympic Trials. In 2013 she was a USA Outdoor Championship finalist. Her 5,000 meter PR is 15:08.52. She is intimately familiar with both the physical and mental strength pro running requires.
“I feel confident in coaching people to these times. And I feel confident in the specific psychology—and the outrageous demand—of trying to do something at such a high caliber and what that does to the mind,” she says.
She fell into coaching recreational runners pretty quickly after she retired from running professionally in 2015. And it was during that time that she gained an important perspective on the sport that she’d never experienced before. “I was just so single minded about my event, my competitors—the world got very small for me,” she says. That world opened up when she started coaching people with all different abilities, disciplines, and purposes.
“It was such a kind of gift to meet all these people who were doing the same thing that I was, [but] in this different way,” Lucas says. She saw that “people who are setting world records and people who are getting through their first 5K can really relate on so many levels—from what the training looks like and what’s going on in their head in the middle of the race and moments of self doubt and overcoming that.”
Lucas herself admits to feeling self-doubt around her new position, now coaching elite athletes for the first time, but that is all part of the process for her. “I don’t think it’s a reasonable thing to never have a doubt,” she says. “I want to experience the doubts, look at them closely, dismiss them, understand that I can do this, and then understand that the athletes are doing the same thing.”
Just like in running, nerves and hesitation show up on race day, but you have to trust that the training is in place. Talking to her coaching mentors, Lucas was reminded that she has all the pieces needed to coach high caliber women, now is the time she puts them all together.
In the short time she’s been with Team Atalanta, she’s tried to keep their training consistent with their previous programs, not wanting to shake things up suddenly—but that’s not to say she’s not making small changes.
“A lot of the changes I’ve made are just getting them to spend more time together—overlapping workouts, helping them feed off each other, and not relying so much on willpower and executive function. Just letting them turn off their brains and fall into a rhythm.”
That excitement and emotional aspect is key in how Lucas coaches. “I’m trying to instill some lightness,” she says. She knows from experience observing her competitors and athletes she’s coached in the past that happy athletes run faster and with greater longevity.
“These are fast women looking to run with the top of the world,” says Lucas. She believes that she can get them there while keeping them happy and healthy, in the hopes of sticking with them throughout their careers.
Before we end the call Lucas announces she’s received a text from Richardson letting her know that her boyfriend will also be attending the hard workout ahead. “She’s gonna have company. That’s good,” Lucas says. After all, happy athletes run faster.